ODE TO THE CITY

Standing tall as the most spectacular jewel in the Queen’s Necklace, The Oberoi, Mumbai is a fitting testament to the story of one of the greatest metropolises in the world

It is hard to believe, but the land on which The Oberoi now stands at the gleaming tip of Mumbai, did not exist before the Second World War. Well, all right, it existed; but only at the bottom of the sea!

In 1940, while the rest of the world was plunged into conflict, the Municipal Corporation of Bombay (as the city was then called) made plans to turn Bombay into one of the world’s great metropolises. The city had been built by connecting several small islands over the space of 200 years and its then commercial hub, Ballard Estate, was also built on land that had been reclaimed from the Arabian Sea.

But as the city grew, Ballard Estate began to seem woefully inadequate. So the municipality decided to build a smart sea-front promenade, something like similar roads in Nice and other great sea-facing cities around the world. This would be called Marine Drive and at its end would be a new area, named after the local political leader Khurshed Nariman, whose idea it was. This was Nariman Point, where the two Oberoi Group hotels in South Mumbai are now located.

Nariman Point was ready just as the Second World War was ending and by the 1950s, the centre of Mumbai had shifted to Marine Drive, to the adjoining Churchgate and of course to the tip of Nariman Point.

By the 60s, however, as the city grew and grew, new space was required. So the municipality reclaimed more of the sea around Nariman Point and planned a new commercial complex. To attract investment in the area, it needed iconic buildings. And so, two were duly planned. The first was the Air India building, intended to be the headquarters of the national carrier. And the second was the imposing structure that opened in 1973 as The Oberoi Sheraton.

It is difficult now to explain how important The Oberoi Sheraton was to the Mumbai of that era. Not only was it the largest hotel the city had ever seen, it was also the swishest. Once you walked out of the Mumbai humidity into the fragrant, air-conditioned splendour of the hotel, you felt you had entered another world: one of refinement and luxury. The opening of the hotel in the spring of 1973 was such a huge event that the city’s newspapers even brought out special supplements to mark it.

With The Oberoi Sheraton as its anchor, Nariman Point went on to become India’s golden mile. Fancy, shimmering skyscrapers came up on the newly reclaimed land, India’s largest companies moved their offices there and some (such as Reliance, now a giant corporation) grew in wealth and size from their Nariman Point offices. The commercial world of Mumbai already revolved around Nariman Point when in 1986, The Oberoi Group announced that it was opening a new hotel. This, by itself, was a big deal. In the 1980s, Mumbai still had very few deluxe hotels and there were only two properties that were rated highly. But there was another question: how would the Oberois top the high standard set by their existing hotel? That was a hard act to follow.

I still remember attending the grand party for the opening of the new hotel. It was called simply, The Oberoi, Bombay. (This was before the name of the city was officially changed to Mumbai). You entered what looked like a lobby only to discover that it wasn’t really a lobby at all, but just a receiving area. Two elevators took you to the actual lobby, a vast, spacey area that seemed to reach all the way to the sky – the hotel was constructed around an atrium allowing you to look to the very top.

The party was hosted by PRS (Biki) Oberoi, then the Vice Chairman of the group (he is now the Chairman), whose dream project the hotel was.

Rather like Khurshed Nariman half a century before him, Biki Oberoi had decided that a great metropolis like Mumbai needed to look further and aim higher. So the hotel he built was dramatically different from the first Oberoi (though the two properties were adjacent to each other and connected). For a start, the hotel was more contemporary. The design was cutting-edge – even now, 30 years after it opened, The Oberoi, Mumbai still looks like it was designed and built last month. The air of timeless elegance that Biki Oberoi created has stood the test of time. Then, there were the rooms. Put simply, they were the most breathtaking rooms of any city hotel anywhere in the world that I had ever seen. The hotel was perched at the edge of the Arabian Sea, but Biki had designed the rooms so that you felt as though you were in the middle of the ocean.

Huge plate glass walls and windows offered unrivalled views of the sea, of the blue skies, of Marine Drive (or the Queen’s Necklace as it was called in the evenings when the lights danced across the street) and of the lush greenery of the other side of Mumbai where the Governor’s Mansion (Raj Bhavan) was located.

I remember being given a tour of the hotel and stopping in the rooms to stare out of the windows. The rooms themselves were large and stylish with state-of-the-art bathrooms, but nothing could beat that view.

And then, there was the food. The Rotisserie, intended as a grill room, served haute cuisine of a calibre that Mumbai had never seen. The Brasserie was such a loving recreation of the classic brasseries of Paris that it was hard to believe that we were in Nariman Point and not off the Champs Elysées. The Indian restaurant, Kandahar, served the North Indian food the Oberois were always famous for.

Through the next decade, as Nariman Point prospered and Mumbai flourished, spreading out in all directions, The Oberoi, Mumbai remained the elegant centre of the city, an island of serenity and luxurious calm. The  rooms were upgraded. The  restaurants changed. The Rotisserie gave way to Vetro, an elegant Italian restaurant planned in association with Rome’s famous Hassler Hotel. The food changed: sushi was now on the menu. The Brasserie morphed into a new, elegant restaurant. Then tragedy struck.

On November 26, 2008, terrorists came across the water and attacked several civilian targets in Mumbai, among them the two Oberoi hotels. The attackers were defeated and eliminated by Indian forces but not before they did their damage. Oberoi employees gave their lives to protect their guests but in the end, blood was spilled and the air of serenity that once pervaded the hotel was horribly and hideously violated.

Biki Oberoi shut the hotel in the aftermath of the attack. Friends say he was devastated and shattered by the carnage. He mourned the loss of lives, grieved for his guests, honoured the sacrifices of his staff and wondered what to do about the hotel he regarded as his baby. Finally, he decided that he would revamp it. Like a phoenix, the hotel would rise again – better, sleeker and even more contemporary. It would be, recognisably, the hotel he opened in 1986 but it would incorporate the advances in luxury that had occurred in the intervening decades. When most companies revamp their hotels, they open a new restaurant, paint the lobby and replace the upholstery in the rooms. Not the Oberoi.

Because he is such a cerebral hotelier, Biki rethought the whole hotel. He had noticed that guests wanted more luxury and more space. In the years since he had opened the hotel, he had created and launched the Vilas resort properties and unleashed a revolution in the world of Indian hotels. So he was more aware of the levels of luxury that guests now demanded, even at city hotels. He took the dramatic decision to actually reduce the number of rooms. When the hotel re-opened, it would have larger spaces and many more suites. The new rooms were sleeker and fancier while being a little more minimalist in design. And they still had those fabulous plate glass windows. You woke up each morning and drank your coffee staring at the Arabian Sea. In the evenings, you sipped a glass of champagne as the sun slid gently down into the sea.

There were other changes too. The all-day dining restaurant was new; they called it Fenix, because that was the spirit behind the hotel. The celebrated Michelin-starred London chef Vineet Bhatia had once worked in the Kandahar kitchen. Now, he returned in triumph to The Oberoi, Mumbai to open Ziya, a modern Indian restaurant. The new lobby still stretched upwards to the sky. But there were little unusual touches, from an eye-catching piano to a new bar at one side.

In 1986, Biki Oberoi had built India’s most elegant city hotel. Now, he did it all over again. And he made it even better. I stay at The Oberoi, Mumbai now when I go to South Mumbai. I stay there for all of the reasons I have described and for something else – a quality that is hard to put into words. When I stay at The Oberoi, an air of calm overcomes me. Not just because the hotel is so luxurious, but because the staff think of everything – so I don’t have to. Is my toothpaste running out? The housekeeper will have placed a new tube in my bathroom even before I noticed. Do I have to tell room service that I avoid gluten? No, they already know. Do I need to worry, after landing on a late flight, that the kitchen will be closed by the time I get to the hotel? No. Someone will call me while I am still in the car on the way to the hotel from the airport, and take my dinner order. The food will be ready by the time I reach the hotel.

There are many qualities that make a hotel great. Some, you can write about. But some you can only feel: that sense of being looked after and pampered because the staff have thought of everything you need so that you don’t have to ask for anything. Mr Nariman probably never imagined that the city he called Bombay would grow so fast and become so big. But wherever he is now, he must be pleased to know that right in the centre of the area that bears his name, there is a place that reflects his dreams for the city. A great metropolis deserves a great hotel. And with The Oberoi, Mumbai, it has one.

Vir Sanghvi

About the author / Vir Sanghvi

The best known Indian journalist of his generation, he has won many awards during his career for both TV and print including the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature Book in the world for Rude Food.

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